WASHINGTON — For peak performance, people should eat healthy and exercise regularly. But in their quest to gain an edge, many resort to dietary supplements. Enter Operation Supplement Safety, or OPSS.
This Defense Department educational campaign, accessible at www.hprc-online.org/opss, is targeted at service members and healthcare providers, but is available to anyone looking for useful information on responsible dietary supplement use.
While some supplements, such as multivitamins, are generally safe, other supplements can pose a hazard to health and even jeopardize careers from adulterants that cause a positive urine drug screen.
“One third of Airmen report using legal body building supplements and one in six reported using weight loss supplements in the past year,” said Col. (Dr.) John Oh, the chief of health promotion for the Air Force Medical Support Agency. “Body building and weight loss supplements, as well as sexual enhancement and diabetes supplements, are high-risk categories that should raise red flags.”
Col. Mary Brueggemeyer, chief of aerospace medicine for the 75th Medical Group, said Hill Air Force Base follows the Air Force policy when it comes to supplement usage.
According to the 1999 Air Force Policy Letter on the Use of Nutritional Supplements, current AFI’s and policy letters do not prohibit the use of dietary supplements except for anabolic steroids and hemp oil. The banning of supplements follows FDA guidance.
“The focus for the Air Force is on safe and informed use by our personnel, which is the purpose of Operation Supplement Safety,” Bruggemeyer said.
However, she cautioned that personnel on flying status, PRP or other special duty, must have supplements reviewed by a flight surgeon before use.
“In addition, use of any medication or supplements whose known actions may affect alertness, judgment, cognition, special sensory function, mood, or coordination requires appropriate duty restriction,” Bruggemeyer said.
Many performance enhancement, weight loss and metabolic stimulators, as well as sexual enhancement supplements fall into this category.
Ephedra is a cautionary tale of a problematic dietary supplement.
Heavily marketed as a supplement to help improve athletic performance and promote weight loss, serious health events, including deaths first reported in the military, led the Food and Drug Administration to ban ephedra in 2004.
The OPSS website contains videos, fact sheets, FAQs and briefings to help people make informed, responsible decisions on supplement use, as well as an “Ask the Expert” feature in which people can directly pose a question to a supplement expert.
“The OPSS website is a must read source for Airmen, commanders, first shirts, superintendents and their healthcare providers,” Oh said. “People think if a dietary supplement is sold on base, it must be safe, but that’s not necessarily true.”
Unlike prescription meds, the FDA does not approve dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness prior to marketing.
“For prescription drugs, the manufacturer must show that the drug works and is safe before putting it on market,” Oh said. “But most supplements are marketed first, and the burden is on the FDA to prove they are unsafe.”
Since supplements can be adulterated with prescription and illegal drugs, Airmen may put their careers at risk with a positive drug screen.
Kammi Hansen, a dietician at Hill AFB’s Health and Wellness Center, said she encourages service members who choose to use supplements to stick with brands that have undergone third party certification by independent companies such as USP, Informed Choice, NSF International and ConsumerLab.com.
While third party certification does not guarantee that the supplement is safe or effective, it does validate manufacturing practices, purity, and quality, so that what’s on the label is accurate.
Hansen said, however, that “food first is always best” when it comes to feeding your body with vitamins and nutrients.
Aside from reviewing the OPSS website, people are encouraged to seek guidance from their medical providers if they have questions about using supplements, particularly if they’re currently taking prescription medications.
“Supplements can interact with prescription medications,” Bruggemeyer said. “Anyone taking prescription medications should review supplements with their medical provider prior to taking them.”
“The aim of Operation Supplement Safety is to not stamp out supplement use,” Oh said. “We want (people) who use supplements to be informed consumers and choose wisely.”
(Richard W. Essary, 75th Air Base Wing Public Affairs, contributed to this article.)